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Thursday, November 06, 2003

Democratic Nation Building - Our Newfound Justification for the Second Iraq War

000BACKTHEATTACK.jpgBushGWdemocracyinME.jpg Maybe President George W. Bush will indeed turn out to be a radical Wilsonian democrat. But it is easy to be cynical about his latest justification for the Second Iraq War -- to bring "democracy" to the Middle East.

After all, there have just been so many examples of dodgy US behavior in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the developing world. And the truth is that this behavior has long been almost precisely the opposite of what Bush claims to be hoping for -- the US has been at best indifferent to democracy as well as popular leaders, and often downright hostile.

For a longer discussion, I refer the reader to the last chapter of my new book. But just to cite a few examples:

  • Each year the US provides billions in economic and military aid to the scarcely-democratic regimes of Egypt and Morocco, as well as Pakistan;


  • President Bush's father made similar loud noises about Kuwait's democratizing efforts in 1990-91, as part of the rationale for his First Iraq War. Today, 12 years later, the Emir and the al-Sabah family remain firmly in control.
  • The US has a long history of overthrowing duly-elected governments in the Middle East and installing pro-US autocrats in their place -- most famously in Iran in th 1950s.
  • The US also has a long history of opposing "popular-if-not particularly-democratic leaders" that it did not like, such Iraq's Abdul-Karim Qassem, Egypt's Nasser, and the Palestinians' Arafat.
  • The US has long turned a blind eye to popular opposition to despotic regimes like the Saudis and the Shah, so long as they served its perceived interests.
  • When it served perceived US interests to side with "national liberation" movements like the Kurds or the Afghan rebels, the US did so. When it did not, it ruthlessly sold them down the river.
  • While Israel, the US' key client state in region, likes to proclaim itself a "liberal democracy" with civil liberties and a free press, many are concerned that its behavior toward the human rights and democratic voice of those who don't happen to qualify for Israeli citizenship is, to put it mildly, not beyond reproach.
  • Some might caution us to beware of getting what we ask for. After all this history, and having alienated and radicalized popular opinion in most Middle Eastern countries through our support of autocratic regimes, it is not as if a sudden change toward the support of democratic rule would produce many friendly governments. To deal with this dilemma will require decades.
  • The other basic history lesson that President Bush needs to learn is that democratic development is most likely to succeed where -- as in "the new" South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico -- it comes from within. Indeed, the irony is that by taking sides so publicly with pro-democracy forces in the Middle East, given our own image and track record, we risk actually undermining these forces. (One hopes that that is not somebody's maniacal hidden agenda.)

Overall, therefore, the best one can say about this latest in a series of shifting justfications for this costly war is that at least it is no weaker than all the others.

However, if, by some miracle, this does mark a historic moment in the history of the United States' commitment to Third World democracy and nation-building, how can we not welcome it? We will also look forward, therefore, with great anticipation to a renewal of US support for human rights and democratic nation-building in countries like China, which both Bush and Clinton have given a pass on these issues, and in Haiti and Liberia, where GW criticized "nation-building" so harshly the last time he ran for President. These last two countries may not have any oil, or WMDs, but heh -- that doesn't seem to matter, does it?

(c) James S. Henry, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent of the author.

November 6, 2003 at 03:25 PM | Permalink

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